In my 21 years as a lawyer I’ve never seen the level of risk and opportunity for solos and small firms as I’m seeing in 2020. Over Labor Day Weekend I read Thomson Reuters’ recently released 2020 report on the small law firms in the United States. I was surprised to see how consistent its conclusions were with conclusions from prior years. Specifically, I was surprised that most lawyers are not embracing technology to grow their businesses when doing so provides an obvious advantage and failing to do so is an existential risk.
To be fair, the survey was done early in the COVID-19 crisis when most attorneys still expected a quick return to normalcy. But the writing was on the wall long before the pandemic.
NOTE: To be consistent with the description of the relevant cohorts in the study, in this post I’ll define “very small firms” as solo practitioners and firms consisting of up to six lawyers.
The Legal Marketing Status Quo: Danger and Opportunity
In this post I’ll focus primarily on one finding — that nearly three of every four very small firms say acquiring new business is a challenge. That statistic is consistent with what my team and I are seeing in our US and Canada markets, and explains why some very small firms are growing rapidly, while others struggle to survive.
The good news is that the opportunity is clearly there for owners of very small firms who are willing to embrace change and a different (but well-established) marketing paradigm.
Very Small Firms (Unnecessarily) Struggle to Acquire New Business
The fact that nearly 75% of very small firms say that they are struggling to acquire new business is old news. It was the status quo before the pandemic hit. For attorneys who weren’t paying attention to the evolution of legal marketing and legal marketing technology, before COVID-19 changed the world, it was easy to believe that those who succeeded with marketing were simply willing to enter the spending rat race.
But today, every attorney who is still in business understands that technology has permanently changed the world and the practice of law. Embracing technology has become table-stakes for firms that have the will to survive. Those who haven’t embraced some of the innovations of the past decade simply aren’t doing business.
The most obvious example is the adoption of remote working and meeting technologies. Platforms like Zoom have become essentials for operating a law firm and most attorneys and their clients have utilized, if not embraced, video conferencing.
But, assuming that the survey data remains ballpark reflective of today’s mid-Q3 reality, less than one in four very small firm owners has taken action by embracing technology as a solution to grow their practices. And fewer than one in five have changed their marketing strategies in any meaningful way.
The Biggest Legal Marketing Threat: Inaction
That’s scary stuff for those sitting on the sidelines, especially when you consider that many in this cohort are spending (sometimes significantly) on their marketing. Many attorneys who are in the “struggling with marketing” cohort are spending marketing dollars while continuing to struggle. For some, it’s because they have no interest in marketing but know that they have to do it. So they write a check to a marketing agency and hope for the best. For others, it’s because they are locked into a contract with an agency or they continue to trust the agency’s reports, projections, and recommendations. So they spend time communicating with their agency instead of taking the (short amount of) time needed to understand why their agency is not performing.
While these were the typical pre-COVID reasons that lawyers failed to embrace technology or to adapt their marketing strategies, and while such omission has always carried some risk, today the risk is substantial. There are risks from COVID and the attendant shutdowns and uncertainty about future government action. There are risks based on the simple fact that every lawyers’ client base is becoming increasingly tech-savvy and the firm might fail to keep up. There is the risk of emerging competition from non-lawyer legal service providers, and from law firms that are owned by non-lawyers (Arizona just approved non-attorney ownership of law firms, and other states will soon follow).
If you are the owner of a very small law firm, the above mentioned factors amplify the risks of inaction to existential levels. That is the bad news. But it’s also good news because it equally amplifies the opportunities for those who take action.
The Legal Marketing Opportunities for Small Law Firms and Solos
According to the survey, the majority of very small law firms say that their biggest competition comes from other firms of similar size. This has long been the case for most consumer facing firms, and has become more so for business facing firms in recent years. But until recently, it was the very small firm that was willing to spend the most on marketing that would win. Not so today.
Today, marketing spend does not make the top reasons why very small firms compete well. Much more important than dollars spent are:
- Firm Owner’s Attitude: The willingness of the attorney owner of the firm to take the time to understand the firm’s marketing.
- Technology Choices: The selection of marketing technologies.
- Information-based Marketing Approach: Using the right content-based website strategy.
- Fundamentals, Not Shortcuts: Avoiding counterproductive activities sold by marketing and SEO agencies.
In fact, for many very small law firms who pay an agency to do search engine optimization or pay-per-click advertising, there is an inverse relationship between the size of the advertising budget and the firm’s net profits. In other words, in today’s tech-enabled world, marketing efficiency tends to decrease as budgets increase. So the more you spend on your marketing, the more you’ll tend to spend to acquire each new client and therefore the lower your return on investment. Most attorneys who have worked with more than one marketing agency have experienced this anecdotally for themselves. And those who see a diminishing ROI are the lucky ones, as many are simply paying for zero benefit and continue to do so until they acknowledge that there’s a problem. Which brings me back to the survey’s finding that fewer than 1 in 5 very small law firms have changed their marketing strategy in any meaningful way.
The old online legal marketing model is dead.
While most small law firms continue to wait for leads to come to them through spending on advertising or referrals, this model is dead on the vine and has no future regardless of any vaccines or political changes that many lawyers hope will solve their business problems. Why is this?
Lawyers who have embraced technology are empowered by that technology. And so are the consumers of legal services.
Clients, not law firms or marketing agencies, are in charge of the legal marketing experience.
The reason traditional online legal marketing no longer works well for very small law firms is that the clients’ behaviors and expectations have changed. They are empowered through technology to control the narrative. They decide what they will see. They have access to all of the information and all of the alternatives. In other words, your potential clients have the power. That is why a very small law firm’s ad spend is virtually meaningless, and will remain so going forwards.
An end to the pandemic will not change the way that your potential clients are empowered to find information. Nor will a change in national or local political officer holders. Nor will social justice changes, or an acceleration of, or end to, related unrest. Nor will an end to hurricane season, or wildfires, or heatwaves.
What’s the legal marketing solution that works for very small law firms?
Most firms struggle to differentiate themselves in their marketing. But firms that focus on building out content that answers the questions that their ideal potential clients have can create a competitive advantage while playing the game the way their potential clients insist that it now be played. This is not something that’s easy (or even possible) to delegate to a marketing agency at a budget that most very small law firms can afford. But it is something that, with the right technology and a little bit of training, that every attorney can easily do for themselves.
While the majority of very small law firms are still slow to embrace necessary changes, those that do (and choose the right technologies and technology partners) have the ability to grow their practices predictably and cost-efficiently, through booms and financial busts.
LawLytics is a fully supported legal marketing platform that helps small law firms take control of their online marketing while keeping their marketing expenses fixed and low. It works by putting you in control of your law firms website, making it easy to add and edit content, and giving you the strategy and support needed to compete at a very low price point. Calculate how it fits into your firm’s budget, and if there’s a match schedule a 20-minute demo to see how it works and how it can help your firm attract and convert more clients.
- Download Thomson Reuters Study here (requires you to complete a form).